How many hours a day do you spend staring at a screen?

For most of us, that number is seven. That’s the average amount of time spent on the Internet per person in the final quarter of 2021. That equals 49 hours per week, or 196 hours per month. That’s a little over eight days’ worth of time spent online, and that’s just the average.

The Internet has come a long way. What started as a way for government researchers to share information has evolved into a global phenomenon that very few of us could imagine living without. Screens are seen as tools that serve as the gateway to the world around us – and it’s that freedom that can make them so dangerous.

            “Even two hours a day really doesn’t feel like much,” says Kodiak Heathcote, a college student in Alabama. “But that adds up to 56 hours a month. I really don’t think about that as much as I should.”

            Heathcote, 21, is not nearly as severe a case as some others. Yet, even he recognizes the time that he loses daily to the Internet. It’s a reality that many of us experience in 2022, especially those of us who fall under the “zoomer” category – people born from the mid 1990s to early 2010s. After all, we’ve been around digital technology our whole lives, especially those of us born in the middle-to-latter half of that demographic. In 1993, there were only 130 websites; by 2003, there were 40,912,332. That is well over 300,000 times more websites popping up in a ten-year period, and that’s 19 years ago. With that kind of exponential growth taking place, it was hard not to be affected by it.

Today, the Internet looks much different than it did in the 90s. There are now over 1.9 billion websites in existence, with 175 being created every minute. Of these websites, the average person visits about 130 per day, each with varying purposes – entertainment, socializing, and researching just to name a few. It’s easy to squander a good amount of time while browsing, whether intentional or not. However, that time ends up becoming too much for some people, to the point where an entire day is wasted online. While some people manage to find a balance between the real and online spaces, addicts completely indulge in virtual worlds. In the same way that drugs and alcohol stimulate the mind, the Internet activates the pleasure pathways to the brain that can increase dopamine levels, keeping the user coming back for more.

For example, suppose a student is working on an assignment. He’s on Wikipedia, researching nuclear energy for a research paper. While browsing the article, he comes across a section on the Chernobyl disaster. One link leads to another, and before long, he’s researching the history of the Soviet Union. Hours have passed, and he’s no further along on his original assignment. That’s one of the dangers of the Internet; even those with good intentions can become easily distracted – and that’s exactly what content creators want.

“All content on the Internet is made so that it can get your attention – especially now,” said Julia Wolfe, a student at UE. “Everything is tailored to your taste. All ads are that way. It’s really hard to fight that, and I know that it influences me to a point where I don’t think it’s reversible.”

If you or anyone in your family has been susceptible to that influence, it may be in your blood – literally. A study covered in the article “Relationships of internet gaming reasons to biological indicators and risk of internet gaming addiction in Korean adolescent male game users”, published by the BMC Psychiatry, explains that this addiction may have something to do with plasma NE levels. “We identified four major categories of internet gaming reasons: entertainment, getting along with friends, stress relief, and habitual gaming. The habitual group showed significantly greater risk of IGA than the other groups (p <.001) and the lowest plasma NE levels (p =.035)…”. (BMC Psychiatry 1). In other words, the conclusion that this study came to was that the likelihood of one succumbing to Internet addiction might be influenced by the plasma NE level in their blood. This is useful information to know; if true, then one could inquire about their blood type to determine how much they are at risk and can learn to take steps to prevent addiction if needed.

Of course, there’s more to addictions than just biological makeup. Another study, “Mexican and Spanish university students’ Internet addiction and academic procrastination: Correlation and potential factors” by PLoS ONE, suggests that there’s a correlation between Internet addiction and procrastination: “Results revealed similar prevalence rates of problematic and daily Internet use for leisure, potentially influencing Internet addiction in all three models (i.e., Mexico, Spain, and Total). Additionally, significant positive correlation was revealed between problematic Internet use and academic procrastination…” (PLoS ONE 1). The study also found that addiction rates vary by region, with Mexico having a higher addiction rate than Spain. This is important because it demonstrates the impact that different environments can have on a student’s productivity. Perhaps the next step for researchers should be to determine what specific aspects of a region’s culture, school system, and other factors affect these rates.

There are other potential causes that are associated with the individual as well. Yet another study, “Study of internet addiction and its association with depression and insomnia in university students” published by the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, sought to understand the well-known association between Internet addiction, depression, and insomnia within university students. Unsurprisingly, they found the three to be linked closely together among some additional findings: “Several parameters including graduation level, time spent per day on line, place of internet use, smoking and alcohol had significant association with internet addiction.” (Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care 1). This is particularly alarming because it implies that different addictions can act as catalysts for one another. Someone who smokes may become addicted to tobacco and look to further scratch the itch through researching more ways to smoke on the Internet, or someone can be introduced to smoking to begin with through it. Simply put, the Internet enables existing addictions, and that alone is reason enough to use it in moderation.

Despite all of the research supporting its existence, Internet addiction is not officially recognized as a disorder. As such, there are plenty who question its legitimacy. Some in the psychiatric field label it as a “fad disorder” and think that the lack of a single, universally-agreed upon definition for the disorder – as well as poor research methods – is the reasoning behind its still-unofficial status. One could also make the argument that people who suffer from Internet addiction also tend to overuse other things in the same way, such as TV, music, and other forms of entertainment. This could mean that these people aren’t specifically addicted to the Internet. Even so, while all of these counters have strength, the Internet still has a dominating presence in most people’s lives. There are many people who aren’t Internet addicts that still exhibit the same behavioral patterns that Internet addicts do. Before the Internet existed, magazines, movies, music, and other forms of media still stimulated the need for information in the same way that the Internet does today, even if the limitations to their content mean that they don’t have quite the same grasp that the Internet can have. Furthermore – just as the Internet can further other addictions such as alcohol and drugs – it can also be a danger for those who have more mild interests. For example, an elderly woman might particularly enjoy watching the news on TV. On her birthday, her grandson gifts her a tablet so that she can view the news from her fingertips. Now, she has been given a “portal” to entirely new, easily accessible sources of information through the Internet; this has the potential to pique her curiosity to the point of addiction. The point is that the Internet contains more information than literally any other entity known to man, and even if the Internet in itself isn’t addicting, the knowledge that it holds certainly can be.

In the end, whether the risk lies within biology, psychology, or somewhere else entirely, Internet addiction has been a growing problem since the 1990s and will only continue to worsen. Virtually everyone has access to the Internet, so virtually everyone is at risk. By educating ourselves and supporting rehabilitation programs, we can help those who are addicted take their lives back, just as those who struggle with other types of addictions have the ability to do.

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